Films from Israel Searching for Surprises

in 23rd Haifa International Film Festival

by Shmulik Duvdevani

If there’s something comforting about the six Israeli films competing in the Haifa Film Festival, it’s the fact that they don’t testify to the state of current Israeli cinema. Since the festival takes place about three months after the Jerusalem Film Festival, where some of the most anticipated Israeli films are competing for the Wolgin Award — the Haifa festival is, sometimes, left with more negligible productions. Yet, during the last two years, this marginality proved to be an advantage. Two unexpected brilliant debuts by young Israeli newcomers were screened in competition and gained critical acclaims. In 2005 it was Danny Lerner’s Frozen Days (Yamim Kfuim), a Polanski style thriller shot in magnificent black and white, and produced totally independently with a budget of 25,000 dollars, which also went on taking the first prize at the festival that year. In 2006, David Volach’s My Father, My Lord (Hofshat Kaits, shown in Israel under the title Summer Vacation) astonished both moviegoers and film critics with its Kieslowski-like tale of fate and religious belief. And though not being awarded best Israeli film at that festival, it did go on winning the Tribeca Film Festival as well as best director at the Taormina film festival. Most recently it was chosen as best Israeli film of 2007 (along with Josef Cedar’s Beaufort) by the Israeli film critics association.

Alas, there were no such surprises this year. Although two of the competing films were produced independently, they lacked the aesthetic value and narrative sophistication of Lerner’s film, as well as the emotional depth and profundity of My Father, My Lord. Furthermore, no less than four of the six films were shown in video. Unlike the Jerusalem festival, Haifa’s artistic management does enable video screenings in competition — which made the whole event look amateurish. Indeed, three of the competing directors have made their feature film debut, but sadly watching their films made no sense of a new discovery.

But, a winning film did come out of this lame competition: Julia Mia, written and directed by first timer Yuval Granot. In view of the films in competition, this was indeed the best — a romantic comedy, not a common genre in the realm of Israeli cinema, which seeks to explore the relation between fantasy and Israeli masculinity. The story is about a B movie director, living in the slums of southern Tel Aviv, who accidentally meets a charming young woman with an incredible likeness to Julia Roberts. He therefore decides to cast her to a Hebrew version of Pretty Woman, and while shooting the film he gradually falls in love with his fantasy. Though Julia Mia would have worked better as a 50 minutes drama, it still has a lot of nice and original touches, and it mainly succeeds to turn main actress Hagar Ben Asher’s likeness to the young Roberts into more than a cinematic joke.

Another independently produced first feature was David Dazanashvili’s Maftir. An Israeli film noir, it tells the story of an ex-convict who’s out to avenge his brother’s murder. Shot in both black and white and color (by Shai Peleg, who was awarded with the best cinematography award at the festival), the film boasts both style and the young director’s fascination with almost every gangster drama ever produced in Hollywood (from 50’s films noirs to Martin Scorsese and Guy Ritchie). All crew and cast — among them some well known Israeli actors, notably Liron Levo, star of Amos Gitai’s Kippur and Disengagement (Désengagement) — worked on a voluntary basis, hoping to get their salary from future revenues. But unfortunately the plot is a total mess, and one is left wondering whether Dazanashvili — who is not without cinematic talent — really has something of value to say.

Rahamim (the Hebrew word for mercy), another film in the Israeli competition, is a black comedy that, at least its first 20 minutes reminds of the popular farces of French writer-director Francis Veber. The film, written and directed by Yaniv Amoday, focuses on the adventures of Rahamim (Yigal Adika) a not-so-young janitor, who lives with his parents and spends most of his time dreaming of the glorious funeral he’s going to have after he dies. Then one day he meets by chance a clumsy and miserably married hit man (comedian Shalom Assayag), who decides to make our protagonist’s dream come true. Problem is, the story is too monotonous, and if the film pretends to comment on the heroic death ritual, which is still dominant in the militarist Israeli psyche – it most certainly isn’t achieved.

Two other competitors were Arnon Zadok’s Wild Dogs and Ali Nasser’s Waiting for Salah-Adin. The former has a Straw Dogs—like plot. It focuses on the moral and personal dilemma of a successful lawyer (Lior Ashkenazi, Late Marriage) who witnesses his friend murdering, in cold blood, an Arab boy and his grandfather during a military operation. The film shows how he himself turns into a raving vigilante after his wife (Ayeleth Zurer, Munich) is raped. The script was written by acclaimed writer-director Assi Dayan a decade ago, and if it tries to comment on the moral decadence of present Israeli society — it does so in a provocative and unpleasant manner, and one is left wondering how this film ever got financed by the Israeli Film Fund.

Like his earlier films (The Milky Way, The Ninth Month) Nasser’s Waiting for Salah-Adin integrates different levels of reality and fantasy, while at the same time he weaves into the current Israeli-Arab existence some folkloric and mythological aspects. What results is most of the time a simplistic allegory about replacing one radical ideology, communism, with another — Islamic fundamentalism. The story — told through several time levels — follows the sudden disappearance of a man in his 40’s (Mahmud Abu-Jazi) from his village in the Galilee, and the wife who happens to find an intimate and revealing story he’s written, that sheds light on the mystery.

As for the sixth competitor, there’s not so much to write home (or abroad) about. The Little Traitor, based on a novel by Amos Oz, is a children’s film that takes place in mandatory Palestine that speaks mostly English, and is directed by Lynn Roth, an American veteran TV writer-producer (The Paper Chase). Based on the above, there’s a possibility that the jury (headed by distinguished Danish director Bille August) shouldn’t have awarded any best film prize at all.

Edited by Steven Yates